With less than a week to go until the resumption of the EFL Championship, Preston North End manager Alex Neil says he excited for the re-start and ready to get going again.
Speaking to iFollow PNE after completing two behind closed fixtures over the weekend, the Lilywhites boss admitted that he was getting into a different mode again ahead of the trip to Luton Town next Saturday.
“I have been really relaxed over the last ten weeks, which is really unlike me,” he laughed. “I have enjoyed my time off; I have been with the family – more so than I have probably ever been – so there is an excitement there, but you also start to get that feeling of when the games are coming up.
“As a manager, although you enjoy it, when you win it is more a relief, because you think ‘job done, we can move onto the next one’.
“It is quite a strange feeling and it can’t be replicated in anything else that you do, football is really unique in that respect I think.”
North End head to Kenilworth Road for their first league game since March and the importance of getting some game time over the weekend is something Alex is grateful of.
“The games have been good,” continued the Scot. “The two games that we played worked out really well. We got two different squads 90 minutes under their belt, so that is the most important thing.
“We went from doing individual work, because we were only allowed small groups to really ramping it up quite quickly, so the minutes were the most important thing and that will get them ready.
“To be fair to the players, they have come back in really good shape anyway, having completed the programmes they were given when we were off and what that does is that it sets them up, because you don’t really need to run them when they are back to get their base levels and it has worked out well for us so far.
“Once we have played the first game, we are going to have an eight-game batch that is really relentless. The only thing that really comes close to it, is the Christmas period, where we generally play five matches – but within that, when we normally get to the fifth game they are dead on their feet and we are tending to injuries, niggles and knocks.
“The most important thing getting through this period, to get ready for the games, was trying to limit any injuries, because the difficult thing is that if you pick up an innocuous knock that is only going to keep them out for ten days or so, they could potentially miss four games – so half the matches with just a knock that would normally cost you just one game, so that is something we have to be conscious of.
“Also, the testing is a real concern, because anyone testing positive from this point onwards is going to miss matches and I am sure every club from up and down the country feels the same way.”
The introduction of five substitutes and a squad of 20 will give the manager more options and, having reviewed what has happened in the Bundesliga since its resumption a few weeks ago, the gaffer feels it will be something that will have to be used to keep the team fresh.
“If you look at Germany, they have started their season and their football is not too different from ours in terms of its intensity it is played at. Their stats are that their injury rate is three times more than what it has been over the last four or five years and their games are more spaced out than what ours is going to be – so that sets us up for what is going to be coming.
“We are certainly going to need the full squad and the five subs are going to be useful. In Germany, over the first couple of games, a few of the teams changed four or five players around the 60 minute mark, which is highly unusual, so that is something we are going to have to look towards, in terms of being more proactive and that goes for starting line-ups as well as substitutes.
“You always have a lot to consider over the season, things like freshness and players carrying little knocks and niggles. Having been a player for a long time, there are very few games you go into without having some sort of ache or pain, so the lads are going to have to contend with that, but what we have to do is to try and make sure it doesn’t hamper them.
“If we have someone particularly struggling, we might have to drop them out for that one to make sure they are right for the next one and utilise the squad to make sure all the lads are prepared and ready to play.”
The team enter the final names occupying one of the top six spots and therefore in possession of a Play-Off position and Ale believes the break came at a good time for his team: “I don’t think the break came at a bad time for us. This is the first time in over a decade since Preston North End were in and around the Championship Play-Off positions for the majority of the season and I think, as a squad, that took a lot out of us,” he continued.
“We worked extremely hard to get there, we worked extremely hard to get there and we looked as if we were just tailing off a little bit towards the end, but this group has a real steely determination and it is quite strange that as we appear to be tailing off, they start to pick up.
“I am hopeful now that we are fresh. What it does do, is that it puts things into perspective; I think everyone has had a lot of time to think about where we are, what we have to do and how much it would mean and I think the players are ready and prepped for it.
“If you look at the start of the season and we attack these nine games like we did those, we will be in good shape. I have good real confidence that we will go and do as well as we can and I am a big believer that if we play as well as we can, that it will be enough.
“If you are one of the chasing pack, all of these games are six-pointers now, because if we go and win our next game and the teams around about us lose their next game, then it goes from one to four points and that is a very different scenario at that stage. Equally if we lose and they win, they hop above us and psychologically for us, it will be interesting to see how we then cope with that.
“The start is really crucial. If we can start well and get some points on the board in the next three or four matches, what you might find is that you might be able to open a gap up and then some of the other teams won’t necessarily give up, but they might find themselves in a position that they feel that far away from it that they start to feel they can’t qualify, but that is in our hands.
“The pressure that we will be under will be the pressure of not wasting what we have done. It is a different type of pressure – there are teams down the bottom with the pressure of needing to win to not go down and we have the pressure of not wasting the 80 per cent of the work we have already done to this point and we have adapted in terms of handling those pressures.”
The first game sees the trip to Bedfordshire, where, during lockdown, there has been a change of manager, so how does that change things?
“What is going to be really interesting is that I have been in Nathan’s position when I left Norwich and what happens when you leave somewhere is that you do a lot of reflecting over the time that you were there and you look at the bits you did wrong, the bits you want to improve and you have a real clearer idea and picture of what you want to improve when you next go in somewhere.
“I don’t know what for Nathan those things might be, but I am sure for him, he will have resolved that, sorted it all out in his head and knows what he wants to focus on more and try and improve on.
“When you do that, it gives you a real clarity as a coach. When you are in somewhere and everything is happening so quickly and you are playing Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday and you are not getting the results, you can’t always see the woods for the trees, but when you take one step back and come out of it, it becomes quite clear, especially when you reflect on it.
“And that comment in regards to Nathan, having been there before, is also what I have been doing while I have had to take that step back over the last ten weeks – trying to re-evaluate where we are, what we have done well, what we can do better and I think that as a coach, when you get that time – and time is the most important thing as a coach – you can organise what you want to do and implement it.
“When results are coming thick and fast and you don’t win, they become more about the result and not what you want to implement, because you need to win the next game to give you time.
“It is really interesting at times, because everyone goes in as a bit of a purist where we all have the best ideas and concepts and the reality of when you are in it and the games are coming thick fast, when you are winning, it is the best job in the world, when you are not winning you can sometimes become a bit cloudy and a bit difficult,” added the Preston North End manager.
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